Developing Strong Characters is Like Playing the Game of “Clue”
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Columnist Penny Fletcher

March 2017

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“If your characters have a purpose and move towards it, you know you’re off to a good  start. “

Most writers know they need three things to call their words a story: plot, characters and setting. If your characters have a purpose and move towards it, you know you’re off to a good  start. If readers can visualize the characters and the scene surrounding them, it’s that much better.  

My belief is that the most important thing I can do is to introduce my main character first. I want to let readers know who they can root for. Secondary characters are then introduced in the order of importance.

In my 2016 suspense book The Sumerian Secret, I had three “main” characters but only one “central character” around whom the others moved. All through my first and second drafts I made the mistake of using my most exciting scene as the opening, but one of my associate editors called it to my attention that I did not introduce my protagonist until Chapter 2.

Sometimes, we are too close to see the forest through the trees.

In the third draft, I switched Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. Wow! What a difference.  Immediately my protagonist was identifiable and readers understood enough of the five W’s I had learned in my 40 years of journalism (who, what, where, when and why) to care about her.

Building characters is easy for me because I am fortunate enough to have been a journalist for so many years and because of that, I have met some incredible people. Some of my characters are composites of those, or of people I’ve heard talking at work, in a store, on the street, or even at home. Others are pieces of myself; either how I am, or how I would like to be.

“Other authors I know say they invent get their characters in a similar way; by observing people, watching their mannerisms . . .”

Other authors I know say they invent get their characters in a similar way; by observing people, watching their mannerisms, and listening to their words. Yet some characters– especially minor characters – are completely contrived to move a story along in a certain direction. For example, if your main character is falsely accused of a murder, somewhere along the line you’ll probably have to invent an attorney, or sheriff, or maybe even a judge and jury.

The main character– your protagonist – will have more depth than any of those surrounding her. We usually remember a strong character before remembering the name of a movie or book. When I think of Gone with the Wind, I think first of Scarlett O’Hara.

And what about The Don in the Godfather? The memory of his power outweighs my memory of every scene in both the book and the movie.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett develops from a headstrong, selfish and spoiled young girl as she adapts to each situation in which she finds herself. Likewise, every character in The Godfather is either beneficially or adversely influenced by Don Corleone.

Each character in any story needs a motivation, and enough description of his or her backstory to show why he or she acts as they do. I find this more important than a lot of physical description. Oh, a little “long auburn hair” or “skin that smells like oranges” is fine, but enough is enough. I think it’s more important to remember their mannerisms, actions, and motives.

What would your protagonist be doing to accomplish the goals you have set for him?

For example, in “The Firm,” attorney Mitch McDeere thinks he is getting a great offer when signing with the law firm he chooses right after his Harvard graduation, but even before he starts work he hears of two of the firm’s associates recent suspicious deaths. How would Mitch act? Would he anticipate the same happening to himself? If so, what would his mannerisms be when he meets his new bosses? What words would he choose?

Would he still take on the job he was recently hired to do if he suspected foul play, and if he did, how would he act?

I often get into my characters’ heads by playing a mental version of the old board game “Clue.” You remember Clue, don’t you? It was invented in 1944 and has gone through many transitions since then, the latest being “Harry Potter Clue.”®

The classic “whodunit game” has an anthropologist, Mr. John Boddy, murdered in his Hampshire estate, Tudor Mansion. Who could have done it, and how? With six possible murder suspects, six possible weapons and nine rooms in the home, there are hundreds of possibilities and plenty of clues with which to find the answer.

“We always need to learn the five W’s of journalism as mentioned above: who, what, when, where, and why . . .”

Fortunately, for us as writers we are not restricted to Tudor Mansion, but the premise is the same whether our story or book is murder, mystery, suspense, romance, a quest, or any other plot theme. We always need to learn the five W’s of journalism as mentioned above: who, what, when, where, and why and then apply them to “manufacture” our characters.

Here’s an example of questions to ask about a specific character. In this case, we want to know if Mrs. Jones killed her husband. Using the “Clue” method combined with people we’ve met and our life observations, we ask ourselves:

  1. What is Mrs. Jones back story? Was her marriage tumultuous? Did she say if her husband was abusive?
  2. What does she look like? Better yet, what does she act like when questioned by others?
  3. Is she even capable of using the weapon that killed him and was that weapon accessible to her at the time of his death?

If we have combined the “Clue” method of characterization with our own observations and experiences, by the time of the murder readers should know the answers to some of these questions from the events that have already taken place.

Just remember, strong characters make stronger stories!

About Regular Contributor
Penny Fletcher
To contact Penny or use any of her editorial services, you may visit

To buy, visit The Sumerian Secret on Amazon in paperback or Kindle